The Louisiana coast may be rapidly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. And Texas may be next. But how fast, and why?

That's the debate stirred by a lead story in today's Houston Chronicle, which cites a new NOAA report that Louisiana's coastline is sinking at least five feet each century. The report focused on Louisiana, but it prompted another scholar to note that similar pressures are at work in Texas, and that "Galveston is history."

The "subsidence," or sinking, is undeniable -- the question is how fast, and what's causing it. The NOAA report, as the Chronicle takes pains to emphasize, points to natural, geologic factors -- which is music to the ears of the oil and gas industry, whose drilling (as Facing South noted earlier) has long been considered a major cause of the sinking coastlines.

But this new study shouldn't let Big Oil and Gas -- who the Bush Administration is now attempting to reward with a repeal of the 24-year-old ban on new coastal drilling -- off the hook. These industries are still a huge factor, and the recent revelations show how little room there is for error before the beautiful -- and economically and environmentally essential -- coastlines are gone.

Louisiana is an especially frightening case. As documented in Washington Post reporter Mike Tidwell's excellent book, Bayou Farewell (which drew strong praise from the grassroots environmental activists I've talked to), Louisiana loses an acre of wetlands every 35 minutes. This relentless destruction theatens the livelihoods of entire coastal communities and is one of the country's biggest ecological disasters. It also is opening up a clear path for a well-placed hurricane to devastate the entire New Orleans area.

Isn't the protection of our coasts from wholesale destruction an issue that lots of people could get behind?